Saturday, January 26, 2008

Back In Malawi

I began this blog in order to keep track of the intricacies and the various facets of my Peace Corps service in order. I anticipated that internet access would be scarce at best and up until now I admit, I have done an abysmal job. Nonetheless, in the words of our ‘eloquent’ former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld “it is what it is”. And now you are in for two long ones.

First, thank you all who sent Holiday cards. I truly appreciated the thought of all of you and it made coming back to the village all the easier knowing that you’re all still out there!

My return trip to Malawi went smoothly and I rewarded myself by attending a New Years gathering at a volunteer’s site near Nkhata Bay, directly on the lake - a truly breathtakingly beautiful part of the country that I had previously not seen.

I found returning to my site extremely difficult. It was a real treat to spend time with friends and loved ones, and the uncertainty of the future and the retreat into village life was daunting. After traveling through a fairly well developed country, I saw Malawi in a new light. Though the rains are indeed a staple in the recipe for life and indeed they bring out, in force, any living thing that had been dormant during the dry season and the physical beauty of the country, they also bear a curse. Until now, people had been relatively healthy, clean and patiently awaiting the arrival of the rains. Well, they’re here and things have changed.

As many of you have probably heard, there has been massive flooding in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Southern Malawi (my area) for the better part of the last month.. The Zambezi river has swollen to record levels, and though the government in Mozambique has done a commendable job of responding to the humanitarian crisis, the fact of the matter remains that life is made tremendously difficult for millions of people here because of what we in the west would deem, a ‘wet winter’ and leave it at that. People in my village, although safe are becoming increasing isolated in a time of great need. The road out to the district town, if you can call it a road, looks more like a detonated mine field in some places and like a tidal basin in others. Now I fully understand why most of the vehicles in Malawi are in such a state of disrepair. I understand why people are now reluctant to join me in my various ‘crazy’ projects. They have myriad more pertinent issues to worry about; protecting their precious food crops from being washed away, securing fertilizer in order to give them that healthy yield, attending to sick loved ones as a result of the high temperatures, increased humidity and the proliferation of mosquitoes and battling hunger that arises around February as their stores begin to vanish. This time of year truly shows just how difficult life is for millions of people in similar situations. Nonetheless, life goes on with nearly everyone in my village, bar myself, not batting an eye at the deluge that is such a potential threat. To my stark realization, this situation is commonplace.

I have patiently spent the past few weeks reading, wiping sweat from my brow every few minutes, puttering around in my garden and preparing for the arrival of my parents. I have found the evening bucket bath to be a welcome reprieve from the intense heat and humidity (about 95-100 degrees and close to 100% humidity). Last week however I was in for a bit of surprise as I worked my way back into my house after an evening bath, I found a small boy, around 12 years old sprinting from my house. I chased him to the front and then around back where he nimbly scaled a tree and escaped over the fence. I had noticed a few things missing from my house in the previous days, but chalked it up to my inability to keep tab on my possessions. Now I had proof that I was not crazy. This episode did give me quite a fright. Previously I had felt EXTREMELY safe in my village, it is perhaps one the most favorable aspects of my life there. Anyway, I shouted for help and everyone came…. Everyone, even the drunks. My neighbor rushed over with his hoe over his shoulder and peered through the darkness to see if there was anyone else. I took tabs on what was stolen, a flashlight and a plastic knife, as well as my jar of locally made peanut butter. These were missing a few nights previous. And to my dismay, my Leatherman multi-tool that was a gift to me from Stephanie at the farm was gone. The village headman was called, my landlord neighbor came and both apologized profusely, visibly irritated at the situation. We went over what had happened a number of times and they assured me that something would be done.

I was told that the headman and his village police group were conducting an investigation and had a pretty good idea of who had done it. The next day, yesterday morning, I was called from my house at about 6 AM to the headman’s. When I arrived, I found the village police, a group of about 5 men whom I see almost every day including the man who built my fence, my landlord, the chief, a few very old men whom I greet every day and I gather to be the “elders” seated in a circle with the small thief on the ground in the middle. Though my Chichewa isn’t the greatest, I detected stern questioning of the boy who was small, a bit dirty and visibly quite ashamed. After a while with a recount of what happened, the men got him to admit stealing the peanut butter. After a number of false excuses and denials, they carted him back to his house where the found the flash light and the small plastic knife. At this point they tied palm leaves around his wrists and around the wrists of the father who had also been lying and offering excuses for the boy. They brought him back and questioned him about the Leatherman. At this point the entire village of about 100 people including some I had never seen before; men, women, children headmen from nearby villages and other prominent figures gathered around to observe the proceedings. It was shaping up to be quite a shaming. Throughout all this, my heart was racing and a mixture of sorrow and anger passed through my blood. The boy decided he wasn’t going to tell them where the Leatherman was, but after a threat of a lashing from the sugar cane, he said he threw it back over my fence. With this the men jumped up grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back to my yard. A quick search yielded nothing and upon further questioning, the boy changed his story to say that he had dropped it down the village headman’s pit latrine. With this, the men became enraged at his stories and dragged him again, back to the headman’s house, made him climb down into the pit to dig it out. As the men removed the cement slab a horrible stench emerged. After being nearly thrown down the pit with a hoe the boy shouted a few times and vomited, he then claimed to have sold the knife in the previous day’s market to a man from a distant village. The interrogators were livid grabbed him again and took him back to the circle of elders and threatened him with lashings if he was found to be lying. A lengthy and stern scolding bordering on humiliation was given to the boy and his father by the old men and the headman. The village police told me I could return home and they would come to me with further news and take care of the remaining business (not sure what that meant). I had been planning to travel to Blantyre for the weekend in any event. Upon my return I will have the complete story. Hopefully I did not leave too early as apparently the district police were to be called. I was, however reassured that the village police would take care of everything.

The whole episode left me with mixed feeling. While I felt angry and cheated by the boy and his father, I also felt sad at their circumstances. The boy’s father couldn’t have been more than 35 though he looked like he was 60. He clearly was a drunk, and this was reflected in the upbringing of the boy who does not attend school and has been known to be mischievous. I also felt a wonderful sensation of comradery and community as people rushed to apologize and offer their help. I was reassured that I was every bit a part of my village as the oldest member. I felt grateful for the overwhelming support that has been shown to me by my neighbors and fellow villagers. A significant aspect of Peace Corps service is community integration, and after this episode, though I still am a bit put off, I feel that the positive response has contributed to my sense of successful integration and has been more of a positive impact on my experience as a whole.

So this is where I leave you. My experience with village justice is still fresh in my mind, I’m sure I will still need more time to synthesize my feelings. It seems as though this system of keeping order in the village is rather effective without the immediate presence of an established public police force. I’m sure I could offer opinions about issues of justice in traditional settings around the world. Let’s just say I feel as though in my experience it was appropriate and further discussion about that can be saved for another day.

Take care everyone and hopefully I will get my hands on some pictures soon.



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